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The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling | Book Review

When she was struggling to find a publisher for the first Harry Potter book, J K Rowling would not have imagined that once published, this will become an all time bestseller and lead to her writing a series of seven books and a paraphernalia of smaller books that belong to the same magical world including “Quidditch through ages”, “Stories of Beedle the Bard”, “Fantastic Beasts and where to Find Them”, etc. As we have mentioned on this blog before, sometimes the creation is so wonderful that the creator is forgotten in its blinding light. The phenomenal success of Harry Potter series is so widely attributed to the setting rather than the author, to the magical realm rather than the architect of that realm that nobody could imagine J K Rowling away from Hogwartz and magic.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Harry Potter could not have been the cult it is today, if it were not for J K Rowling. Even after the promised seventh and final book of the series was published, it was nowhere near satiating it’s readers and they devoured happily all the supporting mini-books she created.But a writer’s world is so diverse, his/her mind full of the worlds they can create, the characters that compete to take a material shape on the paper, and the stories that have to be told. The commercial success, as valued and coveted as it is, has to give in to creative satisfaction some time or other. A writer cannot always write for a target audience. They write and the recipients would be found.

It is not a secret that J K Rowling has seen days of financial struggles, she has lived in government housing, that a lot of first Harry Potter book was written in cafes, in short she has seen the world that glitz and glamour don’t even acknowledge to exist. That world and everything she observed there makes the backdrop of “The Casual Vacancy“. The book shocked the readers to some extent and by sheer force of anticipation and comparison with Harry Potter series was declared an average seller. Nonetheless, “The Casual Vacancy” is a stand-alone book and a brilliant one at that, and need to be read as such.

Book Title : The Casual Vacancy
Author :
Publisher : Little, Brown (1 April 2010), Little, Brown and Company (2012)
# of Pages : 512 (Hardcover)
Purchase Links : Buy From Amazon.com
Buy From Amazon Indian
Buy from Flipkart.com

In the quiet corner of United Kingdom there is a pretty, neat village called Pagford. With its cobbled streets, its ancient church, its neat market square with hanging baskets full of flowers in matching colours, it appears to sing praises of a community at peace and harmony. Not so far from it is the town of Yarvil, where a lot of Pagfordians find work within reach of their daily commute. Then there is Fields, a satellite township, generated in the post world war era to provide dwellings for the expanding Yarvil, but because the original landowners belonged to Pagford, it is under the Pagford Parish Council.

It has been seen as blight by Pagfordians on their neat community and for sixty years they have tried to return the Fields back to Yarvil. You see, the government-built houses in Fields are mostly populated by people who are on welfare. The drug addicts, alcoholics, depressed, poor, the part of society who according to Pagfordians, have never had a day of decent work in their lives and are burden on the taxpayers’ money.

From the Pagford point of view, they are on verge of victory, as the Central and council Governments are forced to make major cuts on their budgets and there finally appears to have cropped up an opportunity for Pagford to get rid of Fields. The Pagford Parish Council however is divided on the issue. There is a faction that believes that people of Fields stand a much better chance of getting decent education and healthcare while they belong to Pagford – the only way out of their miserable lives.

This faction sees the requirement of offering a ladder to those who are at the bottom of the ditch, so they can climb out and claim their place in civilisation through their work. The old Pagfordians comprise of the head of the council, Howard Mollison, his wife Shirley, influential and wealthy Aubrey Fowley and a few other Councillors. The opposing fraction comprised of Barry Fairbrother and Parminder Jawanda. But things change when Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly of an aneurysm. His death creates a casual vacancy on the council and there are a few who think they can take his place: Miles Mollison, Simon Price and Collin Webb are among future candidates.

The process of filling in the casual vacancy is fairly straightforward. One can easily replace a councillor, a position, but what about the person? The book starts with Barry Fairbrother’s death, but it is in his wake that the rest of the story is told. He is always there, in the background. On the front, we get acquainted with all the characters one by one, with the intricate web of their lives and thoughts, learn their characters, their feelings, but it is all under the shadow of the man that has departed forever. If the measure of any man’s life is how much he is missed after death, than Barry definitely did have a life well lived – for others. He was the champion of Fields. He came from there, educated himself and became a productive member of society. He made people belong; he fought to bring something good out of everyone. He was a good friend, husband, father and mentor to all around him. While the candidates who now stand to fill his place are Miles Mollison, Howard’s son, Simon Price, a shortsighted brute who thrashes his wife and family on daily basis, Collin Webb, nervous, jumpy, and almost schizophrenic.

The adult world as we travel in the book is full of hatred, schemes, cunning, tangled relationships and violence, very much in your face. But J K Rowling also creates real teenagers who are as much part of the community as their parents and are affected worse.

There is Fats Wall, on a self-imposed quest to authenticity, a bully, Andrew Price, victim of domestic violence, Sukhvinder, dyslexic, starving for some comfort from her mother and trying to deal with her bullies by taking refuge to masochism, Gaia, beautiful, vulnerable, trying to fit into new community, and above all, Krystal. Krystal lives in Fields with her heroin addicted mother and three year old stepbrother Robbie. Her life is a perpetual struggle to keep her mother away from drug-dealers, take decent care of her brother and try to keep the shambles of their lives together. But for the world she is just foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, manner-less Krystal, who is sixteen but have reading difficulties.

Barry’s death affected all these lives one way or another, and so did his death. It acted as a catalyst, propelled people into actions that finally lead to the whirlwind of events where secrets are revealed, trust, and relationships are broken, families are torn and and inevitably tragedy and deaths follow. But the darkness has to end. The light of God shines from every soul and the book although ends on a tragic note, also ends with hope.

In India, we do not have the concept of Government Welfare, correction – we do have at least concept of Government Welfare, but we hardly seem to be able to extend it to all those who need it. For us, the little bubble of life revolves around very strong family responsibility. The parents (middle-class educated parents that is) take full responsibility for the education, healthcare and well-being of their children until they are grown-up (and sometimes even after that).

The Government has hardly any say in the matter of upbringing of a child. But, in developed countries, a child is an individual. Child poverty and child safety are one of the most important agendas on the social welfare departments. Non-working parent receive money from Government so that every child gets decent food, healthcare and education. There are unemployment benefits. People who can’t find jobs, are not healthy or well enough to find jobs, also receive benefits.

Like any other system, this system works to a large extent, but there are always those who would take advantage of it. It is not unheard of that mothers keep having children so they can receive benefit money, father of each child is different and plays no role in upbringing any of those. These children live in misery, their mothers too drunk or stoned to take care of them, all welfare money spent on booze and drugs, all kinds of weirdos in and out of house abusing them. None of this should shock us, as our poor live in much worse conditions.

J K Rowling channels a significant amount of her very substantial income in charity causes, and you can see why. She has had the opportunity to observe that territory very closely and “The Casual Vacancy” is a story of that world, the real world, the problems that are going to catch up with us sooner or later. If we tread on the poor today, tomorrow we will pay the price dearly, because our next generation is coming out of them. That generation is going to display the same morals we extend today in treating them.

As the world keeps converting to more materialism every day, we have joined the bandwagon and become the biggest market in the world. But, the next time you buy that expensive, branded shirt, please also remember that that amount of money could have fed a few children on that day. No one is asking you to give up your pleasures, just remember the Indian values, open your heart a bit more, probably feed an extra mouth a day, sponsor one child’s education a year, get some medical help where it is needed, and you would probably make someone’s life better.

May we always remember “Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, the entire world is our family…..Let’s take care of it…….

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